To combat terrorism, better community relations may help police more than greater surveillance powers

Mark MacKinnon writes: France already had some of Europe’s toughest anti-terrorism measures in place, yet its security services failed dramatically this week when confronted by a plot hatched between two brothers in the confines of their shared apartment on the outskirts of Paris. The hard truth is there’s often little a Western democracy – even one such as France that has been confronting radical Islamist attacks for decades – can do to stop such a small cell from carrying out its plan until it is already unfolding.

Even as gunfire echoed through Dammartin-en-Goële and in the eastern fringe of Paris where a second, linked shootout took place, experts here were bemoaning the security services’ heavy focus on surveillance powers, and the seeming absence of old-fashioned good relations between police and the Muslim communities in the suburbs, or banlieues, which surround the French capital. While “counter-terrorism” will be the talk of the days ahead, stepped up efforts to integrate and deradicalize young Muslims must follow.

“These people, they don’t drop from the sky,” said Daniel Koehler, an expert on deradicalization in Berlin who has spent years counselling families how to dissuade relatives from the path of extremism. “Even if they are lone actors, they leave tracks, they interact with other people.”

A reconstruction of the lives of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi makes it clear, in hindsight, that better co-operation – and trust – between police and the Muslim community in the middle-class Paris suburb of Gennevilliers would have gone further in revealing what the brothers were planning than any additional surveillance measures.

The brothers were known locally for their overt displays of religiosity, as well as their loud opposition to the French state. Interviews conducted in Gennevilliers this week by The Globe and Mail revealed that [at] least some of their neighbours had been aware as long as two months ago that the Kouachi brothers (and another man and woman who shared an apartment with them) were stockpiling weapons.

Those anecdotes – had they been passed to police – make a compelling case for intervention when combined with other, publicly known facts about the two brothers. Chérif was convicted on terrorism charges in 2008, and both brothers were later named in court in relation to a 2010 plot to break the mastermind of the deadly 1995 Paris metro bombings out of jail. [Continue reading…]

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